How to Coach It When You Can’t See It

By September 7, 2019September 8th, 2020LTEN Bonus Focus

What goes through your mind when someone mentions the word “coaching?” If you’re like most people, you probably think about a person instructing on a skill or a behavior to another person. And, that skill or behavior — whatever it may be — is probably observable.

For example, you might think of a parent teaching their child to ride a bicycle or a basketball coach teaching a new player to dribble or a district manager teaching a sales representative on how to use a new visual aid. In each of those cases, the coach can physically demonstrate the desired behavior and then observe how the learner performs it.

But what about unobservable behaviors, like thinking? Here, we look at the differences between observable and unobservable behaviors and offer some guidance for coaching unobservable behaviors.

Observable Behaviors
Let’s return to the basketball example above. A good coach will probably go through the following steps to coach observable behaviors:

1. Demonstrate – The coach might dribble the ball to show you how it’s done and give you a solid idea of what “good” looks like.
2. Observe – This is where the coach says, “Now, you try it.” You’ll give it a try, and the coach observes how you perform.
3. Compare and identify gaps – The coach then uses their expertise to compare your dribbling to the standard and identifies the gaps in your performance.
4. Coach – The coach then calls attention to your gaps and provides guidance for correcting them.
5. Practice – Now, as the learner, you’ll take the coach’s feedback to heart and practice good technique.

Of course, a good coach continues this process repeatedly, creating a feedback loop. You practice, the coach observes, identifies issues and coaches some more … and you continue to modify your behavior until you achieve what good looks like.

While coaching observable behaviors isn’t always that simple, the coach has the benefit of being able to see the learner’s skill level, compare it to a standard and witness how well a learner progresses. Unfortunately, with unobservable behaviors, a coach or trainer does not have this luxury.

Unobservable Behaviors
As you might expect, unobservable behaviors, like thinking, are those that one cannot see. In today’s knowledge economy, thinking critically, strategically and analytically, drawing insights from that thinking and using those insights to make optimal decisions are becoming more and more valuable. Coaching unobservable behaviors follows the same basic process for observable behaviors, however, it’s necessary to modify the approach somewhat.

Here are some of the key ways in which coaching unobservable behaviors is different:

1. Demonstration is challenging – As a coach, how do you demonstrate good thinking? It’s tough, and that makes it very difficult to show the learner what “good” looks like.
2. Observation is impossible – A coach can’t observe the actual behavior. That is, after all, why we call these behaviors “unobservable.” About the only thing the coach can observe is the output. For example, a coach cannot observe the thought patterns that a person goes through when developing a SWOT analysis. The coach can only see the SWOT analysis after it’s done. This inability to observe the behavior makes it more difficult to establish the learner’s baseline level of skill and identify issues or gaps for the learner to address.
3. People are resistant to admitting their skill gaps – Nobody likes to admit that they have a gap. However, if you’re really bad a dribbling a basketball, the coach can just take a video of you and then show it to you in all its glory … clumsily slapping a basketball around without rhyme or reason. It’s hard to argue with that. With unobservable behaviors, however, there is no video, and learners can be much more reluctant to admit that their thinking or decision-making methodologies might need some improvement.
4. The “vocabulary” of thinking is not concrete for most people – When it comes to thinking skills and behaviors, there is a range of concepts we must define so that learners can have a context for development. We’ll look closer at those concepts below.
5. Talking skills are critically important – Because direct observation is “off the table,” both coach and learner need to use good talking skills. Talking will replace observing when it comes to determining the learner’s baseline capabilities, describing what good looks like, and coaching between the two.

Tips for Teaching and Coaching Unobservable Behaviors
To effectively coach learners on how to think better, it’s usually necessary to help them gain a baseline understanding of thinking in general. In my experience, two areas are especially important:

1. Common biases and thinking “pitfalls” – To avoid pitfalls, it helps to be aware of them! Learners who understand the cognitive biases and heuristics that are part of our brains’ operating systems are better prepared to think critically and effectively. For example, learners should know about confirmation bias, overconfidence bias, the “Curse of Prior Knowledge,” System 1 thinking (intuitive and spontaneous) vs. System 2 thinking (rational and analytical) and more.
2. The vocabulary of thinking – Going in, learners must be able to define concepts like assumptions, inferences, premises and conclusions. They should be able to explain the difference between deductive vs. inductive reasoning. Learners need a basic knowledge of logic and how to formulate logic statements and conclusions. This may sound like a bit of Philosophy 101 — and it is — but it all makes a very important foundation on which to build excellent thinking skills.

Building this foundation takes the learner from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and that’s a big step. Now, they’re ready to take the next step.

After learners get “up to speed” on thinking in general, the next step is to provide a helpful framework they can use to analyze situations, evaluate and prioritize information, develop insights, identify and evaluate alternatives and make decisions. This is part of describing what good looks like to the learner.

Practice is also important. Self-guided exercises in which the learners use the framework to think through and solve problems are key. In addition, ongoing coaching is important once the learner goes into the field and begins to apply what he or she has learned.

As mentioned above, both the learner and the coach must possess good verbal communication skills. The basic coaching process is the same for observable and unobservable behaviors:

1. Demonstrate
2. Observe
3. Identify issues
4. Coach
5. Practice

However, the coach will need to use excellent verbal communication to describe what good looks like, rather than demonstrating it outright. Because the coach can’t observe the learner’s behavior, the learner needs great communication skills, too. They’ll need to explain to the coach the various thinking processes and steps they used to solve a problem or complete an exercise. That will help the coach “observe” the behavior and identify issues.

The key message is: When coaching unobservable behaviors, verbal and written communication will have to do a lot of the heavy lifting.

Karen Foster is head of learning strategy and solutions for Salience Learning. Email Karen at

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